Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Buying Servers

How hard can it be to buy a server?
I've been buying servers for years and I've experienced several types of purchases.

  1. The Cheap and Nasty
    This is where you go out to your local computer shop and buy a no-name, unbranded "glorified PC" server. Luckily, this practice seems to have completely disappeared from medium and large size business but it still goes on in small shops. The thing to remember about this approach is that they end up costing you in the long run.

    The best I can say about this approach is ... don't.

    If you really have to go down this track, then don't buy a server. Spend the same money on a good "brand-name" PC with a decent warranty - at least 3 years on site, and 4 hour response time. Also, make sure that you have good backup software and that you backup often.

  2. The Enterprise Special
    This is the exact opposite of the "cheap and nasty". You end up effectively paying $30,000 for what is essentially $10,000 worth of hardware. It's a favourite of upper/executive management and while it usually guarantees a good server, it comes at great cost. The good part about this is that you end up with great support and usually, future proofing. If you're in a larger business, then you really have no choice in the matter.

    If you're in the process of buying a server this way, be prepared to be presented with a list of about 30 items because your vendor is likely to itemise everything, right down to the power cables. You can't take these lists at face value either and just say "well, that looks nice - ok, we'll take it".

    A key point to remember is that these are salespeople, not technicians. They sell the hardware and although they often have "partners" who configure it, they really aren't as technical as general IT staff who do this sort of thing every day. Their item lists are often simply lists of every available option for your hardware rather than being a list of what is required for your current circumstances. For this reason it is absolutely critical to review the list.

    I'm currently in the middle of such a purchase and in wading through my quotation, I've found the following;
    - An extra processor (be wary of these, they increase software license costs)
    - An extra NIC (not a problem but the server already has two onboard)
    - Remote Support Adapter - only good if you intend to use it.
    - Duplicate Service Packs (Warranties)
    - Media Kits for Software I already have - I just need the license
    (So far, an extra $2,247)

    There are other extras of course, redundant power supplies and such, but some of these items are actually useful and should be retained.

  3. The Brand Name Runout
    This is my favourite type of purchase. In this scenario, you either contact the manufacturer directly and/or fill out an order form on the internet. Alternatively, you go down to your local computer hardware shop and talk to them about the latest specials on brand-named server hardware. If you're pedantic about getting correctly matching hardware - ie: the right drives for the server etc, then you can get the best deals this way.

    One key point. Never ever rely on the retailer to obtain hardware that is compatible - Always check it yourself. I learnt this the hard way once when I purchased a server with RAID card and drives. Not only did the drives not fit into the server (the were the wrong type) but there were five drives but only three drive bays in the server itself.

RAID Configurations
The whole reason why I started this post was to bring your attention to a nifty little online RAID calculation tool. I've strayed considerably from my objective. In any case, here's the link. This tool is useful because the amount of actual space you have varies considerably depending upon the type of RAID Configuration you have.

For example; If you have 6 x 100 GB drives, it doesn't follow that you'd have 600GB of space, unless you're using RAID 0. In fact, if you're using RAID 5, you'll have 499 GB and if you're using RAID 6, you'll only have 399 GB. It helps to have a play with the online tool before your order your drives.

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